It’s 10pm on a Sunday night and I’m lying in bed wondering if I need to bleach my anus. I’m a 31-year-old woman and a proud feminist but I’ve somehow fallen into a deep, dark Instagram hole. At least my labia don’t need tightening, I think to myself. Or do they?
My momentary worries about my nether regions started after I saw the recent social media furore between former Love Island competitor Megan Barton Hanson and the environmentalist, politics student and model Kirstie Brittain.
Barton Hanson had announced plans for a meet and greet with fans through her partnership with WooWoo, the "vaginal health, beauty and pleasure" brand, and Brittain took exception to what she saw as Barton Hanson's blatant U-turn following a paid advert she did for Avon in which called on women to “challenge beauty stereotypes” and “support and empower one another”.
“Your last IG vid is about criticising the media/ brands for upholding unrealistic expectations and stereotypes towards women and pressuring them to look perfect," Brittain vented. "So why the hell are you collaborating with a brand that sells products to lighten and tighten vulvas? Surely you can see how fucked up and hypocritical this is?”
Barton Hanson replied: “If lightening and tightens makes a women feel more confident what’s your problem?” She went on to say that “tightening isn’t for the sexual partner, it’s for the women to enjoy sex, if it’s tighter it will fell better for her?! Nothing to do with appearance" and "if a women wants to make her pussy tighter for her, let her do so, if she never ants to shave let her do so, if she wants to pierce it or trim her pubic hair into some cute design what’s it to you … ?”
Of course, I totally appreciate that part of feminism is having the autonomy to do whatever the fuck you want with your body – from bleaching your arse to getting fake breasts. And yes I've considered the latter too – hell, I even put a downpayment on a boob job when I was much younger, before changing my mind. However, Barton Hanson's post feels troublesome to me for many reasons, and not just those stated by Brittain.
Firstly, a point of pedantry: the aforementioned products do not tighten your vaginal muscles, just your labia, which won’t change the way sex feels for a woman.
Secondly, I agree with Brittain that “these products perpetuate the idea that a vagina has to look a certain way and that your private areas need to be tight and light and attractive". They absolutely don't! Moreover, I worry that if I, a woman in a happy long-term relationship, feels a semblance of insecurity about the way my sexual organs look after reading Barton Hanson's post and viewing WooWoo's products, how might younger and potentially more impressionable women react?
Thirdly, regarding labia lightening/tightening and anal bleaching creams – as friend and social media consultant Flora Beverley says: “why is any company creating and marketing solutions to things that aren’t problems?!” All this will do is perpetuate the feeling among women and young girls that they aren’t good enough, or worse still that they aren't even normal when of course they are.
Fourthly, to “challenge beauty stereotypes” we need society to stop exclusively celebrating women who look like models or porn stars – be that with or without surgery. If anything, Barton Hanson conforms to contemporary beauty stereotypes, so why did Avon use her for their campaign in the first place?
And fifthly, while I feel compassion towards Barton Hanson knowing that she intended, at least in part, to spread a positive message about sexual health through her collaboration with WooWoo, surely Megan has her pick of brands, so why agree to such an egregious collision with Avon? Does this just come down to short sightedness, poor management or mindset which values money over meaning?
Personally I feel that people who have a large social media following (Barton Hanson boasts 1.9million on instagram alone) should bear some degree of accountability for their partnerships. Indeed, I often ask myself: what is my responsibility as a social media “influencer”?
I'm acutely aware that having a large online following puts me in a place of power: I have an amplified voice and it seems others will, rightly or wrongly, listen to my thoughts; I have the chance to be a change-maker for the greater good; I can promote causes I care for and products of value; I can also monetise my feed to help pay for the time and effort I commit to building my social media feed.
It's a tightrope and, of course, not every collaboration or sponsored post can promote sustainability or women’s empowerment (or can it?) but I try at least to make sure that my core values and key messages are consistent. In Barton Hanson's case, arguably the brand which conflicted with her most genuine message was Avon, not WooWoo. Beverley says: “by sending out mixed messages she's just weakening her brand. Followers are seeing a post that tells them that they should be happy with who they are, and that it’s what’s on the inside that counts, before being sold a product that counters exactly that. It’s confusing to the follower and harmful to Barton Hansons brand”. In other words, better to choose your lane and stay in it.
I’ve turned down partnerships – and money I really needed – with several brands in the past: for example one that sold real fur on their jackets and another whose products came in plastic packaging and weren’t ones I actually used. Sure, sometimes I collaborate with companies that aren’t perfect (how can any brand truly align with the complex set of principles, aesthetics, ambitions and audience demographics that form the basis of a personal social media feed?) but there are easy places to start. For instance, I always ask for a brand's corporate social responsibility statement before agreeing to work with them, and I take the time to read them. Why? Because if some one asks me “who made the clothes you're promoting” I want to be able to answer them. But even though I consciously try to create considerate partnerships, I still live with the fear of getting it wrong and being called out for it like Brittain did to Barton Hanson.
So, should we expect more from ‘influencers’ and continue to call them out, or should we all give Barton Hanson a break? After all, it's her feed, just as it is her body. Who am I to tell her what she should and shouldn't post?
I’d love to know your thoughts.